EDMONTON – The Alberta government tabled legislation Wednesday aimed at revoking the right of its largest union to go to arbitration and substituting it with the government’s own wage deal.
It also tabled a bill that will punish the union with steep fines and civil liabilities if it wages an illegal strike.
Finance Minister Doug Horner told reporters the government did not want to bring in legislation, but felt compelled to when contract talks broke down earlier this year and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees filed for binding arbitration.
“We did make a commitment to taxpayers that we would live within our means,” Horner said as Bills 45 and 46 were introduced.
He said the new wage deal must be in line with the multi-year wage freezes that Alberta doctors and teachers have already accepted.
“We want to make sure when we’re negotiating that’s what we’re doing, and I think it’s fair to the ATA (Alberta Teachers Association), it’s fair to the doctors that settlements in this round (of bargaining) will be of a similar nature.”
The government wants a four-year deal, with wage freezes in the first two years followed by one per cent hikes in each of 2016 and 2017.
Horner said if the two sides can come to a different agreement close to those parameters before Jan. 31, the imposed deal will not kick in.
He also stressed that the right of arbitration is being taken away for this negotiation only.
Government House Leader Dave Hancock also introduced motions to have the bills fast-tracked and passed through the legislature within days.
Hancock said time is of the essence as the fall sitting of the legislature is due to finish next week and the arbitration process with AUPE is still set to go in February.
“It’s not the type of bill that either Doug or I or the government really want to bring forward,” said Hancock.
“We don’t take any glee in sponsoring bills of these natures, but it became very apparent through the course of the fall that we weren’t going to get movement (on AUPE wage negotiations).”
The AUPE represents 22,000 front-line government workers in a variety of fields, from corrections officers to social workers.
The tabling brought an outpouring of anger from some AUPE members. They rallied on the steps of the legislature Wednesday afternoon.
Some took the protest inside the building, marching up the stone steps toward the doors of the legislature debate chamber itself when they were stopped by NDP Leader Brian Mason, who convinced them there were more effective ways to protest. Some called out Mason for doing so.
Premier Alison Redford was not in the house for question period Wednesday. She was on government business in Calgary.
AUPE president Guy Smith said the bills are the beginning of the effective dismantling of collective bargaining in Alberta.
“There’s two routes to resolve bargaining issues. One is strike action, whether it’s legal or not. The other is arbitration. And they’ve taken both away,” said Smith.
“What they (the government members) are doing is dictating to the people of this province how they’re going to engage in negotiations.”
Mason, whose party’s bedrock support comes from unions, said the move is unprecedented.
“I’ve been in the legislature for a long time now, about 13 years, and I thought I’d seen everything, but today the government has really shocked me with this colossal act of bad faith,” said Mason.
Wildrose finance critic Rob Anderson says the Wildrose agrees that there needs to be a good deal for taxpayers in the next AUPE contract, but he said a last-minute bill rammed through the legislature that strips the union of the right of arbitration is not the way to do it.
“This is what gong-show government looks like,” said Anderson.
The government pays out $1.6 billion a year in salaries to unionized workers.
The wage imposition is set out in Bill 46, the Public Service Salary Restraint Act.
Bill 45, the Public Services Sector Continuation Act, sets out automatic suspensions, civil liabilities and steep, six-figure fines for unions that engage in illegal strikes.
Hancock said an illegal strike by corrections guards earlier this year made the government realize it needed better tools to keep essential workers on the job.